Dagongmei refers to a new labor movement, in China, that strives to promote labor reforms (Ngai 4). The movement is commonly associated with women workers from rural China. This paper finds out the historical conditions of its emergence and existing divisions in the movement. Similarly, it explores the possibility of forming a class-for-itself, based on the Dagongmei identity. However, before embarking on this analysis, it is, first, important to understand what calls this new subject into being.
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What Calls Dagongmei into being
Many factors created the Dagongmei labor movement. However, four things emerged as the true influences of this movement – production and reproduction of labor power, restrictions of the labor movement, poor working conditions, and the emergence of a new generation of workers (Ngai 4-6).
Production and Reproduction of Labor
In China, factories mainly recruited labor from the countryside (China: a Century of Revolution). Although these people contributed to the economic prosperity of the country, peasant families, living in the countryside, often suffered from the high cost of labor reproduction (Ngai 4-6). This situation emerged because rural laborers used tiny subsistence plots of land to undertake their economic activities.
This is why Chinese labor wages are lower than other developed economies (China: a Century of Revolution). Thus, labor systems in western economies often consider the total costs of labor (including the reproduction costs of labor, the reproduction costs of the laborers’ children, and the reproduction costs of the future generation of proletarians) to compute wages.
Restricted movement of labor in China (Hukou system) contributed to the emergence of the Dagongmei labor movement (Mardi Gras: Made in China). The Chinese government introduced this system by registering the entire population as either rural or urban dwellers (Mardi Gras: Made in China). This system gave a lot of power to the owners of capital who housed their workers in small shelters (Ngai 5). Thus, the workers were always under the control of their employers. If they were unable to fulfill their labor duties, the employers sent them back to the village. As Ngai (6) said, the workers were instantly disposable.
Poor Working Conditions
Ngai (9) highlighted the similarities that existed between Chinese labor workers and female laborers in the early industrial period in Britain. A notable similarity was the alienation of the laborers from the factors of production. This fact made it difficult for workers to improve their status as laborers (Hairon 3). The same system limited the ability for personal development because workers owned small plots of land, which were (just) enough to prevent them from starving, but insufficient to help them to prosper (alienated labor). Dagongmei would seek to change this situation by advocating for land reforms
A New Generation of Workers
Ngai (12) defined two generations of workers as those who (1) had amassed enough savings to live a decent life in the village, and those who (2) did not have any savings and did not intend to go back home. The latter group mainly strived to improve its economic condition by pursuing an “economic ideal.” This quest supported the goals of Dagongmei.
Historical Conditions of her Emergence
In 1978, China embarked on a reform movement to improve its economy through increased production (Hairon 3). To meet this goal, the country invited migrant workers to work in existing and upcoming factories. Similarly, people from rural areas moved to the cities to supplement the existing labor force (Mardi Gras: Made in China). However, when unemployment issues emerged, the government restricted the flow of immigrants and people coming from rural areas to work in the cities. Through this system, the peasants received low wages.
Nonetheless, from 1958 to 1962, the Chinese government allowed millions of people to come to the cities to do dangerous and low-paying jobs (Ngai 5). Their contracts stated that their tenure in the city only lasted if they had a job. However, most of the available jobs were temporary.
Therefore, they moved back to the villages when the jobs ended. An exclusionary system prevented them from enjoying a welfare system for workers (Mobo 3). Collectively, Chinese workers suffered from low wages, poor working conditions, accidents, missing social/welfare protection, poor living conditions, and isolation/discrimination (Mobo 3). These historical conditions created a labor movement to improve working conditions.
What Divides Her from Within
As an Individual Subject
Part of the problem that affects Dagongmei is the willingness of poor and disenfranchised people to offer cheap labor (mostly to the benefit of owners of capital). This problem partly stems from rural-urban disparities that have created different economic conditions for both sets of workers (rural and urban dwellers).
As a Social Group
Gender inequalities also undermine the labor movement because it prevents people from understanding the need to improve the working conditions of both men and women. Furthermore, these gender inequalities divide the societal response to the labor sector inequalities.
What Possibility Might there be for The Formation of a Class-for-itself, based on the Dagongmei Identity
Forming a class-for-itself, based on the Dagongmei identity, depends on China’s willingness to embrace democratic reforms that would promote better social equity in the labor movement, and beyond.
However, without these reforms, the existing (suppressive) labor system would make sure that the Dagongmei do not form a class-for-itself. Instead, rich industrial companies would continue making a lot of profit from the existing system by making sure poor working-class citizens remain classless, thereby perpetuating social divisions in the country. Therefore, adopting a fair wealth distribution system would only happen if China adopts democratic ideals.
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Ngai, Pun. Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005. Print.
Mardi Gras: Made in China. Ex. Prod. David Redmon. New York, NY: Carnivalesque Films, 2005. DVD.